Ironies & Origins: Affirmative Action's History Key to Informed Debate

By Ethridge, Robert W. | Black Issues in Higher Education, June 27, 1996 | Go to article overview

Ironies & Origins: Affirmative Action's History Key to Informed Debate


Ethridge, Robert W., Black Issues in Higher Education


Many books have been written about affirmative action

since it emerged on the scene some 30 years ago. If

written by an author from the Right, the books told us

to resist affirmative action because it eliminated

meritocracy, promoted racism, led to reverse

discrimination and was un-American because it

guaranteed equal results rather than equal opportunity.

If the author was on the Left, we were told to support

affirmative action because it provided reparations for

past discrimination, guaranteed a fair share of the

economic pie, and because it was a civil right that was

guaranteed by the Constitution.

Rather than succumbing to the arguments of the

Right or the Left, Professor Skrentny pushes the debate

back to its origins to examine how the issue emerged in

the first place. According to Skrentny, the key to a better

understanding of the policy requires ". . . understanding

the cultural, political and historical bases of the Right's

resistance and the Left's support." He carefully explores

the combination of events locally and internationally

that resulted in affirmative action becoming policy

without debate. He wants the Left to know more about

where the affirmative action policy came from and its

political liabilities.

The author presents the Right's opposition to

affirmative action on the premise that it is based on

racial preference rather than on the American ideal of

meritocracy. The position of the Left, according to

Skrentny, is that preferences have been prevalent in

American society for quite some time. He refers to

veterans preference programs, which not only gave

veterans extra points in the employment selection

process but also to members of their families. Skrentny

also points out that nepotism, the practice of providing

employment opportunities to members of one's own

family, is another example of preferential treatment that

was highly accepted in the past.

Black Opposition Cited

Because America touts itself as being colorblind, it

is understandable that racial preferences would be

subject to assault even while veterans programs were

endorsed and nepotism was highly practiced. Basing an

employment program on racial preference was, at the

least, unpalatable because it contradicted the very

American ideal of colorblindness. Using numerical

ratios to determine the appropriate level of

participation by Blacks smacked of an illegal quota.

In addition to presenting the success of affirmative

action efforts such as veterans preference programs and

nepotism, Skrentny details a history which explains why

race-based affirmative action programs are more

condemned. There are those, Skrentny points out, who

argued that in a colorblind society meritocracy must be

the factor which separates one individual from another.

Black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and

the NAACP's Roy Wilkins were not supportive of

racially-based programs because of the hard-fought battles

waged to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Another well-known civil rights activist of the time,

Bayard Rustin, expressed his concerns when he

questioned why Richard Nixon, a Republican president,

was championing the passage of a race-based program

called affirmative action. Skrentny answers Rustin's

question by referring to the racial turmoil, the Cold War

and the desire to be legitimate in the eyes of the world in

the late 1960s as factors that led Nixon to garner the

support of the Left and the Right to pass affirmative

action legislation. …

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